By Kristy Bay
When Emily Niehoff, a New Jersey native, started her undergraduate education at Virginia Tech, vocational ministry was not on her radar. She majored in Creative Technologies with a double minor in art history and communications, hoping to pursue a graphic design career in New York City. But God had other plans. Through a humorous roommate mix-up, Niehoff was introduced to Virginia Tech’s Baptist Campus Ministry.
“I didn’t know anything about Baptists,” Niehoff laughed. “But what drew me to [BCM] was, first and foremost, the community.” Niehoff eventually took on a leadership role at BCM, while simultaneously finding herself in an identity crisis after a summer graphic design internship. “I didn’t love it,” Niehoff said. So, while attending the regional BCM gathering at Eagle Airy, Niehoff listened to a Romania trip presentation and caught the travel bug.
She investigated a short, 10-day trip to Western Romania, and committed to going. “That trip completely changed my life. It was where the road to theology began for me. I was floored by the diversity of Christians.” Following her Romania trip, Niehoff participated in another short trip to Southeast Asia. Niehoff’s global pathways were being built.
One year later, Niehoff was back at Eagle Airy with BCM. This time, she listened to a Mexican pastor who worked with Afghan and Iranian refugees in Vienna, Austria. Something within Niehoff’s soul sparked. After connecting with the BGAV, Niehoff found herself back in Vienna. “My time in Vienna was complete chaos,” Niehoff laughed.
“I was only supposed to be there for one year but wound up being there for five.” Niehoff took over running the internship program that she herself had completed. “Projekt: Gemeinde means Project ‘The People of the Church,’” Niehoff explained. “There were (stet) a hodge-podge of all sorts of theologies [present]. I took over the internship program and did logistics, pastoral care, short-term church visits… it all helped me realize my call to minister with young people.” Ministry, and travel, went together for Niehoff. “In 2018 alone, I went to 16 different countries!” Niehoff exclaimed.
In 2019, global travel (and global internships) ground to a halt due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “I didn’t have any interns to manage, so it created a crisis of ‘what do I do?’” Niehoff lamented. Once again, the Holy Spirit was at work. Niehoff found McAfee School of Theology’s brand-new, online MDiv, and after scrambling to get everything sorted, started seminary one month later.
“They (McAfee faculty/staff) were great to work with. They accommodated the different time zones.” Despite the turmoil caused by the pandemic, Niehoff carried on her dreams of travel, interfaith dialogue, theological education, and ministry. While enrolled in seminary online, Niehoff remained active in the Austrian Baptist community. She worked for the Austrian Baptist Youth and Children’s Department doing advertising, marketing, and videos for them. She also helped found FoReL—a nonprofit, interfaith network for female religious leaders.
When travel restrictions were finally lifted in 2020, Niehoff was working on a certificate through McAfee on Interfaith Dialogue. She found herself in North Africa on an interfaith trip and her connection to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s student internship program, Student.Go, began. As a part of her Student.Go work, Niehoff does web design and media to promote their work with sub-Saharan African refugees in North Africa. Niehoff also sensed that her time in Vienna was ending. “I felt like I needed an in-between time between leaving Vienna and coming back stateside,” Niehoff explained. “I needed an internship for my Leadership in Context Class—one in a church. I wanted an English-speaking country that worked with my visa limitations.”
England checked all those boxes. Drawing on her European Baptist connections, Niehoff found herself on a new road… this time at New Road Baptist Church in Oxford, England. “It’s been another really great time of exploring Baptists around the world,” Niehoff notes. “The building is from the 1800s, but is rented to so many different organizations. Part of their space is used to teach English to Ukrainian refugees; they have a homeless resource center one day, and a gospel choir another day. Anything you think of, they host it here. It made me fall in love with church work again.”
What’s next for Niehoff? She is currently working on that. She just visited her 40th country—Iceland—and spent Christmas in Vienna with friends. Would she recommend a global path to others discerning their call to ministry? Absolutely. “If you have the opportunity to jump,” Niehoff says, “and it aligns with who you are at the moment, just do it. Push yourself to believe in yourself and believe that you can do it. And be open… be open to receive, to learn, [and] to listen more than you speak… Lean into it.” As Niehoff prepared to sign off Zoom after finishing her final seminary presentation of the semester, her eyes glowed. “I don’t know exactly what comes next,” Niehoff said. But after all the global roads Niehoff has traveled, she is sure her new road will be equally formative. “Find what feels like home to you, and lean into it,” Niehoff states. Wise words from a wise, and well-traveled, minister.